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The Associated Press
Published Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 3:21 PM
HUDSON, Wis. — A father changed his pleas Thursday to guilty but insane in the killings of his three young daughters last summer in Wisconsin, which means the defense at his trial will have to prove he had a mental disease or defect so severe that he wasn’t responsible for his actions.
Aaron Schaffhausen, 35, had pleaded not guilty, but switched his plea after more than a day of delays and legal wrangling about what kind of evidence will be allowed at his trial, which starts next week.
Schaffhausen spoke in a flat tone that lacked emotion as he answered the judge’s questions about his new pleas.
“Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?” Judge Howard Cameron asked at one point.
“Yes,” Schaffhausen responded.
With the plea change, prosecutors won’t have to prove Schaffhausen killed his daughters and or that he tried to set fire to their River Falls home last July.
However, the defense will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he had a mental disease or defect, and that he lacked substantial capacity to appreciate that what he did was wrong or couldn’t control his impulses.
Jury selection is to begin Monday in St. Croix County Circuit Court.
Schaffhausen, who moved from River Falls and took a construction job in Minot, N.D., after his marriage broke up, is charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide and one count of attempted arson. Police found his daughters, 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia, dead in their beds. Their throats had been slit, and gasoline had been poured in the basement.
Prosecutors allege Schaffhausen did it to get back at his ex-wife, Jessica, because he was bitter over their divorce and angry because he thought she had begun seeing another man.
According to the criminal complaint, Schaffhausen texted his ex-wife on July 10 to ask for an unscheduled visit with the girls, and she consented. Schaffhausen arrived and sent a baby sitter away.
About two hours later, he called his ex-wife and, according to the complaint, told her: “You can come home now because I killed the kids.”
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SCHAFFHAUSEN TRIAL: Depression, video game addiction, post-murder phone call
Posted: Apr 04, 2013 11:11 AM EDT Updated: Apr 04, 2013 7:48 PM EDT
by Rob Olson
HUDSON, Wis. (KMSP) –
Jessica Schaffhausen resumed her testimony Thursday in the triple murder trial of her ex-husband, Aaron Schaffhausen, who has admitted killing the couple’s three daughters but claims he was not responsible due to mental illness.
Testimony began Thursday asking Jessica Schaffhausen about her ex-husbands depression, for which he started taking the antidepressant Celexa around June of 2011 — 13 months before the murders.
“He wasn’t interacting with us or participating much,” Jessica Schaffhausen said, adding he would just play video games for “hours and hours.”
After going on the medication, she said he “started participating more, doing more around the house.”
Initially, the medication had positive effects, unless he drank. Then, “it made him really weird.”
“You couldn’t tell he was drunk. He didn’t slur his words,” Jessica Schaffhausen said. “He’d just say really off-the-wall things.”
She also told jurors that Aaron Schaffhausen’s video game addiction was a constant that she tried to learn to live with.
“Very early on in the marriage I had to accept I was the one who was going to do the majority of work around the house,” she said.
But had she ever seen Aaron Schaffhausen being abusive with girls?
“No,” she said. “If anything he was just neglectful — shut off.”
If there was a choice between kids and video games, “he’d be playing a video game.”
Did he love the kids? Yes, she said. But did he ever not love the kids?
“I think July 10th kind of cured him of that,” Jessica Schaffhausen said.
At one point, Jessica Schaffhausen had written a letter to her husband in an attempt to save the marriage. She described the intent as “really trying to make things work, telling him things that I loved about him, hoping that he was going to change.”
Yet, she says he never did. Instead, he played “World of Warcraft” and paid no attention to her or his children.
“Day after day, it would be the same thing,” Jessica Schaffhausen testified. “I would go to work and take the kids to day care. I’d give him a list of things to get done that day. I’d get home and they wouldn’t be done.”
AFTER THE DIVORCE
Divorce papers were jointly filed in August 2011, but Jessica Schaffhausen said that by October, Aaron Schaffhausen had begun calling her repeatedly in the middle of the night, yelling and swearing.
When asked what Aaron Schaffhausen would do when one of his daughter’s answered the phone, Jessica Schaffhausen said, “He would hang up.”
“They were really hurt,” she said of her children.
Jessica Schaffhausen said she had fights with her ex-husband over his lack of contact with their children, saying he showed no interest in them and only wanted to see her — but she didn’t want to see him because it made her uncomfortable.
“I didn’t want him in the house with me,” she said.
She also explained that during the autumn months, he would occasionally stay at the home with the girls while she would stay elsewhere. Once he moved to North Dakota for work in October, Jessica Schaffhausen said he stopped talking to their children; however, he would sometimes call her up to 30 times a day to harass her.
In March 2012, Aaron Schaffhausen threatened to come to the house, tie her up and kill one of the girls in front of her so she would feel the pain he felt. That conversation prompted a nearly 12-minute phone call from the River Falls Police Department.
The call was played in court. In it, a defensive Aaron Schaffhausen can be heard explaining that he was upset.
“If you knew my background, I think you would understand,” he told the investigating officer.
When asked whether or not he considered himself a danger to himself or others, Aaron Schaffhausen immediately replied, “No.”
“I have dark thoughts, but the thing is, they’re dark thoughts,” Aaron Schaffhausen said. “You know, the thing is, I might as well fantasize about dragons — and you’re calling me concerning like, ‘Hey wait a minute, are you thinking about dragons? Because really, in this society, I don’t need a dragon to be produced in a society.'”
He went on to ask the officer if she knew what he meant, and the officer replied that she didn’t.
In April, Aaron Schaffhausen called to say he wanted to come over and visit the girls while they were asleep.
“I told him no, that it was creepy and the girls wouldn’t get anything out of it,” Jessica Schaffhausen said. “If he wanted to see the girls, they should get to see him too.”
Jessica Schaffhausen said she allowed him to remain a part of their lives because it was important to her daughters.
“They really missed him and really wanted to see him. They loved him so much,” she said through tears. ‘
Even so, she admitted that she feared leaving the girls alone with him because she worried he would forget to feed them or put them to bed on time.
While still on the stand, Jessica Schaffhausen said her ex-husbands neglectful behavior hurt the children. During an interview with police, she had told investigators he had no empathy and that was an ongoing problem in their marriage.
“From the very beginning,” she said. “Always very hard for him to be able to think about how other people feel.”
Yet, in the months before the slaying, Jessica Schaffhausen said he had changed his tone. Especially in May and June, Aaron Schaffhausen began acting more civil and showed more interest in their children. She testified that she thought he was moving on and therefore felt more comfortable letting him see their daughters.
THE LAST CALL
When Aaron Schaffhausen called Jessica on July 10, 2012, telling her that he was in the Twin Cities and wanted to come see the girls, she “was very flustered.”
“I had no idea he was in the Cities,” she said. “I tend to be a planned-out person and don’t like my plans altered at the last minute. He wanted to see me and I didn’t want to see him.”
The call from Aaron later that day came as Jessica was getting into her car to come home.
“He told me I could come home now because he killed the kids,” she said. “I started yelling at him, that wasn’t funny, and he couldn’t say things like that. He made some noise, then he hung up the phone.”
AFTER THE MURDERS
Jessica Schaffhausen told police investigators that Aaron Schaffhausen was “obsessed” with her.
“He was used to me taking care of everything for him and I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
Defense attorney John Kucinski asked whether she had described him as completely irrational and crazy to police.
“Yes. He just murdered my children,” she replied.
However, she continued on to say everything Aaron Schaffhausen had done in the month or so prior to the murders gave her the impression he loved the children, so what was her mindset as reality set-in?
“I was living in the reality that I no longer had children,” she said.
When asked what she thought he wanted at time of murders, she replied, “He wanted me to come back and be his wife again and take care of him.
Aaron had told her his whole world revolved around her — “that I’m more like a mom to him than a wife” — and that he felt she’d abandoned him.
“He wanted me to come back and be his wife again and take care of him,” she said.
AARON SCHAFFHAUSEN’S FATE
If Schaffhausen is found mentally fit, he could go to prison for life. If the jury finds he was not responsible due to mental illness, he could be committed to a psychiatric institution and possibly be released at some point.
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Aaron Schaffhausen sentenced to life in prison without release
HUDSON, Wis. – Aaron Schaffhausen sat stoic and motionless as a judge on Monday handed him the maximum sentence for killing his three daughters.
The 35-year-old construction worker didn’t appear to flinch as he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison without the hope of ever getting out.
In a symbolic gesture, St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Howard Cameron also ordered that Schaffhausen serve his three mandatory life-in-prison sentences one after another — not at the same time.
“In this situation I have to send a message to [Schaffhausen’s ex-wife] Jessica and to the public that each child is so important, the sentences have to be consecutive to each other,” Cameron said.
Schaffhausen admitted killing 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia Schaffhausen in the River Falls, Wis., home the girls shared with their mother on July 10, 2012.
Prosecutors said he did it to hurt his ex-wife. Defense attorneys argued he was legally insane at the time and should be sent to a mental institution instead of prison, a claim a jury rejected at his trial in April.
Though Schaffhausen faced three mandatory life prison sentences, the judge could have made him eligible for release to extended supervision in as early as 20 years.
After the sentencing, Jessica Schaffhausen said in an interview that she felt “huge relief” that she wouldn’t have to plan her life around the possibility of her ex-husband getting out of prison someday and fearing he might hurt her or her loved ones again.
“I can just forget about Aaron from here on out,” she said, wearing a pendant containing some of the her daughters’ ashes. “I’m hoping even society will pretty much forget about him very quickly.”
During Monday’s three-hour hearing, family members spoke emotionally about the effects of the killings and what they felt should happen to Schaffhausen.
‘Their last memory’
The girls’ aunt, Mary Elizabeth Stotz, called Schaffhausen a “coward” who took advantage of his daughters’ unconditional love to murder them, then hid behind a mental illness.
“Their last memory is what an evil killer their dad was,” she said forcefully. “Aaron should rot in hell. … Let the darkness of his actions haunt him forever.”
On the defense side, Schaffhausen’s aunt, Patricia Fix, tearfully spoke of how she used to baby-sit Amara.
She said her nephew should face the full consequences for what he did, but “I will promise you he’s not a coward … send him for life, but stop saying he’s a coward.”
Fix said society doesn’t want to address mental illness and recalled how Schaffhausen had told several people of the dark thoughts he was having before the murders.
“He desperately needed intervention and none came,” she said.
Schaffhausen’s mother, Sue Allen, addressed her son directly in court, telling him to forgive himself and forgive those who didn’t help him. “You are a good man who did a horrible thing for whatever reasons,” she said. “I love you, Aaron.”
‘Mental disease or defect’
While jurors ultimately rejected Schaffhausen’s insanity defense, they did agree after his trial that Schaffhausen suffered from a “mental disease or defect” as defined under Wisconsin law. But they found that it did not cause him to lack substantial capacity to appreciate that what he did was wrong, or make him unable to control his actions.
Schaffhausen killed the girls during an unannounced visit from Minot, N.D., where he was working construction. The girls were excited to see him when he came to the door. He killed them after the baby sitter left.
In announcing his sentence, Judge Cameron considered the gravity of the crimes, the protection of the public, Schaffhausen’s character, deterrence and other factors.
“The hardest thing for me to go through when you read the police reports is the girls ran to him with joy,” Cameron said. Though he said Schaffhausen had a mental illness, “I don’t think it’s a mitigating factor.”
In addition to the life sentences, Howard sentenced Schaffhausen to 12 ½ years of confinement for attempted arson.
Defense attorney John Kucinski said after Monday’s hearing that they will appeal, partly on the grounds that jurors didn’t get to see an expert’s mental health report that they had asked for during deliberations.
Kucinski said Schaffhausen is sad about his daughter’s deaths but didn’t speak in court because they felt people wouldn’t be satisfied with whatever he said.
He argued that society doesn’t want to believe that people who are employed and likable can be so mentally sick.
Jessica Schaffhausen said afterward that she’s thankful for the outpouring of support and urged people to take threats that friends, relatives or co-workers make seriously by reporting them to police or intended targets.
Now, she said, she will concentrate fully on her daughters’ memories.
‘Here for a reason’
The community is holding several events to raise money to build an accessible playground in their honor.
“I’m here for a reason,” Jessica Schaffhausen said. “I just try to behave in a way that I think they would be proud of.”
“Really appreciate kids when you have them,” she added.